In late April a three-day hole unexpectedly opened in our schedule. Following many busy weeks, we sought a quiet relaxing place to unwind — someplace not too far away and new to us. Although we have traveled extensively in Iowa we’d never explored the south-central part of our state.
Following a three-hour drive we set up our tent in a pleasant site at Red Haw State Park just outside Chariton. Our plan was to walk the park’s many trails, enjoy quiet time reading in our campsite, tour Chariton and the area by car and visit a few local eateries. With the exception of freight trains rumbling by just outside the park we found the solitude we wanted and several things not expected.
Our itinerary included a short drive to the John L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining and Labor about 10 miles west in the tiny town of Lucas. It was there that we discovered our quiet outing had brought us to a region that impacted the growth of American industry while boosting a budding labor movement that eventually raised the pay of millions of workers, enhanced workplace safety and led to the eight-hour workday. Our planned few quiet days in a lightly populated part of Iowa turned into an adventure of learning little known facets of the state’s geology and role in modern employment practices.
As we sat around our campfire that first night we talked about how Iowa is coming full circle in energy development. Few modern Iowans realize that our state was once an enormous coal producer. Millions of years ago plants living in vast forests died, were buried under the pressure of tons of earth and eventually coalesced into coal, a rock composed mostly of carbon. Unlike most rocks, coal burns.
When one drives across south-central Iowa today the landscape is one of rolling hills. Sloping pastures punctuated with grazing cattle are bisected by heavily timbered valleys. It’s hard to image that, had we visited a century ago, we would have seen dozens of coal mines, populated towns and many miners.
Most mines closed decades ago, but one lingered until 1994. When mines shut down, their shafts were filled in and tailings vegetated with trees and grasses. Entire towns vanished. They aren’t ghost towns with decaying buildings, they are gone and pastures and forests grow where they once stood. Finding tangible evidence of our state’s coal mining past is difficult.
Coal mining didn’t disappear because of resource depletion.
“It’s estimated that 90 percent of Iowa’s coal is still in the ground,” said Ryan Clark, a geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey. Mining companies departed mostly because Iowa’s coal was inferior to that found in other states. Economics shifted mining to Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and, more recently, Wyoming and North Dakota.
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Iowa’s vast coal resources are in a region roughly stretching from nearly the Missouri to the Mississippi rivers along the Missouri state border and northward in a triangular shape with its apex near Des Moines. As we sat in our Red Haw Park campsite we guessed that coal might be hidden deep beneath our tent.
During our nation’s early days, wood fires cooked American dinners, warmed homes and fueled railroads and industry. Overcutting depleted forests by the mid-1800s, just as millions of immigrants were landing on our shores and the industrial revolution was ramping up. Businesses, transportation and homes needed a new, abundant and cheap fuel just as coal deposits were discovered in at least 30 states.
The age of coal swiftly replaced the era of wood fuel. For over a century coal warmed our homes, powered ships and trains, and stoked industrial furnaces until petroleum began replacing it in the early 20th century. The United States still burns plenty of coal, but almost all of it is used to stoke electric generating stations. Today demand is dropping as utilities switch to less expensive, cleaner natural gas, solar and wind generation.
“In the peak coal mining year of 1910, over 710,000 miners toiled in our nation’s mines. They dug out 417 million tons of soft coal and 85 million tons of anthracite, or hard coal. Their efforts supplied 75 percent of the nation’s energy. The steel mills of Gary (Ind.) and Pittsburgh, the growing automobile factories of Detroit, the nations offices, schools, hospitals and railroads drew their sustenance from the magnificent coalfields that lay in 30 states,” wrote labor historian Robert Zieger.
Iowa coal production soared when railroads reached deposits. Trains both consumed coal and transported it to distant markets. Hawkeye State coal was mostly extracted from shafts bored downward into veins of the black rock. Working in the mines was hard, dreary, dirty and dangerous.
“Miners and their families lived in isolated valleys and coal camps remote from cities. Poverty was chronic. Housing often consisted of hastily assembled tar paper shacks. Indoor toilets were rare, paved streets, running water and electricity luxuries,” continued Zieger.
Perhaps the most famous of Iowa’s coal towns is Buxton, located just east of Lovilia in Monroe County. Founded by Consolidated Coal in 1895, it had a peak population of between 8,000 and 10,000 people. Most were African-Americans who had been recruited from West Virginia and Virginia. Buxton ceased to exist when coal companies pulled out and today few traces of it exist. Fortunately, a labor shortage during World War I opened many factory jobs in Iowa’s larger cities and many former miners found work in industry.
Iowa coal settlements, like Lucas and Cleveland, were company towns. Coal companies owned the housing and stores that forced indebtedness. Unregulated mining was dangerous work. Nationally, between 1890 and 1917, 26,434 miners were killed and many more maimed. Many of the casualties were in Iowa’s mines. We visited a cemetery near Lucas and noticed many graves of men who died in their 20s and 30s, likely victims of mining accidents.
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Miners realized they’d need to band together and strike for better pay and working conditions. When a strike closed mines in Lucas in 1880, coal companies imported African-Americans to work the mines.
“These people were recruited from the South and probably didn’t realize the coal companies were bringing them to Iowa to break strikes. They mostly moved here to find a better life,” said Felicite Wolfe, curator at the African American Museum of Iowa.
It was in this Iowa mining environment that John L. Lewis was born in Cleveland in 1880, a time of great wealth disparity. The Iowa town, which no longer exists, was just east of Lucas. As a young man Lewis worked in the pits and experienced the hardships and dangers of mining. He later moved to a mining area in Illinois and began rapidly rising in the growing American labor movement. He became president of the United Mine Workers of America and later founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized workers in many industries across the country. In the 1930s he was the dominant force in the American labor movement.
Thanks to the hard work and courage of Lewis and millions of union members, the workplace was transformed. Unions advocated for regulations mandating workplace safety, the 40-hour workweek and better pay. They enabled union and non-union working people to rise from poverty and live healthier and happier lives. Perhaps a historic poster in the John L. Lewis museum sums it up: “Without unions, a day’s work might still be 12 hours.”
Fortunately, most people enjoy leisure time unknown to the coal miners of Iowa’s past. An outstanding place to spend a weekend is in Iowa’s coal country. Its rolling hills are scenic and easily reached from the Corridor. Many state parks, including Red Haw, Rathbun, Nine Eagles and Lake Wapello feature quiet and pleasant lakes for boating, swimming and fishing. County parks add opportunities for camping and outdoor recreation. In recent years many private landowners have developed campgrounds and have cabins for rent. Wildlife, especially deer and turkeys, are abundant and the region is famous among hunters for its heavily antlered bucks. Birding is excellent, and each year volunteers sponsor a birding festival near Chariton. It will be held on Sept. 5 this year.
We enjoyed exploring Chariton, once the headquarters of Hy-Vee Stores and now a major warehousing site for the company. A delightful discovery was The Porch, a small coffee shop in a residential area. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at the historic Hotel Charitone. Hy-Vee, the Lucas County Preservation Commission and the Chariton Chamber-Main Street cooperated to restore the grand building. It houses the only Hy-Vee Market Grill in a downtown and not in a grocery store,” said Chamber Director Alyssa Trunck.
While sitting around our campfire on our final evening in Red Haw State Park we mused about the great changes that have taken place in both energy and labor since the coal mining era.
Iowa is coming full circle in energy. Once our state’s coal buttressed our economy as we exported it to other places and burned it locally. When the economics of Iowa coal withered, the state had no petroleum resources to replace it, and for a century Iowa was a net energy importer. Now, as wind, solar and biofuels grow, Iowa is poised to be a net energy exporter. Fortunately, unlike coal, our modern energy sources are renewable and clean.
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On our final day camping at Red Haw State Park we took an ambitious hike on a trail that follows the lake. Wildflowers were just coming into full bloom, and we spotted and heard warblers, thrushes, cardinals and owls among the many birds migrating and beginning the nesting season. When the trail led us to a peninsula jutting into the lake we were delighted to spot two loons swimming about a hundred yards from shore. Loons are the iconic bird of the northern wilderness, but they often briefly stop in Iowa during migration to rest and feed. Sighting and hearing loons is always exciting and made our trip especially memorable.
A trip to the John L. Lewis museum is an outstanding way to enjoy beautiful Iowa scenery and learn our state’s role in coal mining and the growth of the labor movement.
If you go:
l What: The John L. Lewis Memorial Museum of Mining and Labor
l Where: 102 Division St., Lucas, Iowa
l Contact: www.coalmining labormuseum.com, (641) 766-6831
l Hours: April 15 through Oct. 15 Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. or by appointment.
l Cost: $2 for adults and less for children
l Festival: The museum sponsors the annual John L. Lewis Festival that will be held on Sept. 1 this year. It will honor the 150th anniversary of the town of Lucas.
l More information: The Chariton Chamber Main Street, charitonarea chambermainstreet.com; (641) 774-4069
l Where to eat: The Porch Neighborhood Coffee Shop, 705 Auburn Ave., Chariton; www.theporchcoffee.com; (641) 203-2562
l Local connection: The African-American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, on Sept. 7 will open a temporary exhibit on African-American migration to Iowa between 1865 and 1930 that encompasses the mining era; www.blackiowa.org; (319) 862-2101